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Escape your demographic
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's always a little unnerving when you discover that corporate marketers have you pegged to a T and seem to have an almost supernatural knowledge about your particular tastes. On a recent errand to the local Ace Hardware store I was stopped cold by the music I heard playing over the stereo system — ten steps into the store and I could tell instantly that not only was the song being played a favorite of mine, but I also knew that it was a relatively obscure one as well, a song that I never expected to hear in the place where Connie Stevens had once sung the company's jingle.
After a few bewildered seconds I was finally able to ID the song — "Age of Consent," by New Order, that great, jangly, propulsive song from the band's Power, Corruption, and Lies LP from 1983. As much as I liked hearing the song, it sounded disorienting in that environment — you get accustomed to hearing non-threatening, radio-friendly songs when you're shopping, "Baker Street" and Simon and Garfunkel, Bananarama and "Break My Stride." But gloomy alternative/punk/goth disco from the 80s? It seemed like a total anomaly. Or maybe a brave new world.
The next song on the playlist was another surprise, too, for suddenly I was hearing Morissey's theatrical baritone crooning "Frankly Mr. Shankly" to the assembled Sunday shoppers picking out their Weed Whackers and socket wrenches. This, too, seemed radiantly bizarre: the Smiths on the air at Ace Hardware? The band with that pretentious, omni-sexual lead singer/provocateur who sported the Gumby haircut? What's going on here? Again, I loved The Queen is Dead but my pleasure at hearing the song was somewhat diluted by my sudden paranoia, for I was starting to wonder if somebody had known that I was going to be buying plants that day and had set up the playlist to keep me occupied.
I have to admit that by this time I had already gathered all my purchases and was ready to check out, but I was deliberately dawdling, eager/fearful to hear what the next song was going to be. When I heard the whooshing synthesizers from the intro of Iggy Pop's "Fire Girl," I was convinced that somebody had broken into my car and stolen my CDs and plugged them into the system. Nobody but me likes that song, for God's sake, it's a junky, hammy love ballad from Iggy's wholly discredited 1984 money-grab Blah-Blah-Blah, an overproduced, critically-derided mess that I loved anyway.
It was conceivable, I thought desperately, that some Iggy Pop song could be played here — "The Passenger" is a friendlier tune, one that's made it into some TV ads, and "Lust for Life" has been somewhat ubiquitous since it was used in Trainspotting in 1996. But "Fire Girl"? I looked over the other shoppers in line and determined there could only be one person who would possibly be interested in hearing that song. By now I was thoroughly spooked and so I paid for my plants and got out of there, eager to leave before another troubling, personal song from my tortured past blared through the speakers.
Of course I realized later that there was hardly anything otherworldly about the occurrence of those songs--any mildly-informed musicologist would instantly recognize those three artists as early-80s, alternative/punk mainstays, artists that helped break up the log jam of Journey/Foreigner/Styx AOR radio sludge so prevalent in the Reagan years. And of course it's not a stretch to imagine that fans of those bands would eventually get older, and find themselves one day needing to clean the gutters with products bought from a chain hardware store that was somehow cannily aware of their musical tastes. All of this was feasible, logical, perfectly acceptable; yet I couldn't help feeling a little spooked and dispirited by the whole experience, for it suddenly dawned on me that my musical tastes weren't nearly as unique as I had once thought. Which meant, of course, that I wasn't as unique as I once thought, either.
It's the same feeling I had when my teenage daughter asked me a few years back if I knew the song "Mother of Pearl" by Roxy Music. Good God, I said, Yes I know that song. "Mother of Pearl" is one of my all-time songs, I told her, a top 5, a song I did time with, a song I used to get through numerous break-ups, dark nights of the soul, what-does-it-all-mean reveries, etc. An obscure song, really, I said, for though Roxy Music had their American successes ("Love is the Drug," the Avalon LP) that particular song is structurally so odd with lyrics so arch and self-mocking that I couldn't imagine that it ever reached a wide audience and was only known by Roxy Music fanatics. That was when my daughter told me the song was featured in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother and that it had suddenly become popular because of the exposure.
It's embarrassing to admit how offended I was by this information — how dare they use my song! I wanted to yell at her. I had forged such an intense, personal relationship with "Mother of Pearl" that it vexed me to know that some TV writer had liked it, too; I thought "Mother of Pearl" was my own private domain, my sacred refuge. To know that it was blithely being disseminated to the masses enraged me, and I maintained a childish vendetta against the show for years. (Of course, I never watched it in the first place.)
It's beguiling to think that our particular tastes are so unique and singular that they could never be duplicated in another person, but as Ace Hardware, Inc. has shown me, that's hardly the case. I guess it's probably a positive thing, to know that there's a demographic out there with my name on it, but I remain wary of the entire notion. Like Groucho Marx once so famously said, I'd hate to belong to any club that would have me for a member.